The brand-new PGA Tour season begins on Thursday and Steve Rawlings is quite keen on the chances of West Coast specialist, Phil Mickelson, despite Lefty's Ryder Cup woes. Read our man's Safeway Open preview here...
"After his crazy ball-moving putting exploits in the US Open, his bizarre dance ad for Mizzen and Main and now a dreadful Ryder Cup, the media are quick to poke fun at Phil but he shouldn’t be ridiculed about his game just yet. He made it all the way to East Lake for the Tour Championship, putted better than anyone else in the field at the recent Dell Technologies Championship and he’s too big here given how weak this field is."
The Safeway Open, formerly the Frys.com Open, marks the beginning of the 2018/2019 wraparound PGA Tour season. The event has only been in existence since 2007 and this will be the sixth time it's kicked off the new season.
The North Course, Silverado Resort and Spa, Napa Valley, California.
Par 72, 7166 yards
Stroke Index in 2017 - 71.76
After three years at Grey Hawk in Arizona and four at Cordevalle in San Martin, California, the event moved to the North Course at the Silverado Resort in Napa Valley, California, in 2014 so this will be the fifth year in-a-row the course has hosted.
The Robert Trent Jones Jr designed North Course opened in 1957 but it has been substantially reworked in recent years by Troon Golf and one of the venues co-owners, Johnny Miller.
In addition to the last four editions, Silverado hosted the Kaiser International between 1968 and 1976 and the Anheuser-Busch Golf Classic from 1977 to 1980 and some of the game's legends won here during those 13 years. Johnny Miller, Jack Nicklaus, Tom Watson and Ben Crenshaw all tasted victor at Silverado and some big names also won here during the 14 years it saw Champions Tour golf when it hosted the Transamerica from 1989 to 2002, with the likes of Bernard Langer, Lee Trevino, Tom Kite and Dave Stockton all winning here.
This is what the 2014 winner, Sangmoon Bae, had to say about the venue.
"I really like this course because it's a classic. Always classic courses you need really good iron shots. Really narrow, small greens, a lot of undulation."
There were a few changes to the course before last year's edition, with new closely mown areas around seven of the greens, including each of the last four.
The fairways are largely tree-lined and reasonably tight and the Poa-annua greens are expected to run at 11.5 - a fairly modest pace by PGA standards.
It doesn't look like there'll be any Featured Group coverage here and because we're on the west coast, it's on quite late in the UK but it is live on Sky Sports for all four days, starting at 23:00 on Thursday night.
Last Five Winners
2017 - Brendan Steele -15
2016 - Brendan Steele -18
2015 - Emiliano Grillo -15 (playoff)
2014 - Sang-moon Bae -16
2013 - Jimmy Walker -17
What Will it Take to Win the Safeway Open?
We now have four years of course form to survey, so here's the top-three and ties at the last four editions with all the key stats - Driving Distance, Driving Accuracy, Greens In Regulation, Scrambling, Putting Average and Strokes Gained Putting.
1 Brendan Steele -15 DD 1 DA 3 GIR 4 SC 7 PA 60 SGP 29
2 Tony Finau -13 DD 11 DA 39 GIR 52 SC 10 PA 16 SGP 16
T3 Chesson Hadley -12 DD 7 DA 24 GIR 47 SC 48 PA 1 SGP 9
T3 Phil Mickelson -12 DD 45 DA 74 GIR 32 SC 44 PA 3 SGP 19
1 Brendan Steele -18 DD 23 DA 5 GIR 21 SC 4 PA 8 SGP 6
2 Patton Kizzire -17 DD 35 DA 67 GIR 21 SC 21 PA 4 SGP 1
T3 Paul Casey -16 DD 10 DA 34 GIR 35 SC 2 PA 6 SGP 29
T3 Michael Kim -16 DD 50 DA 34 GIR 16 SC 12 PA 5 SGP 18
T3 Scott Piercy -16 DD 12 DA 29 GIR 7 SC 48 PA 8 SGP 4
T3 Johnson Wagner -16 DD 42 DA 29 GIR 9 SC 9 PA 9 SGP 8
1 Emiliano Grillo -15 DD 37 DA 8 GIR 16 SC 5 PA 41 SGP 61
2 Kevin Na -15 DD 30 DA 5 GIR 10 SC 40 PA 12 SGP 51
T3 Jason Bohn -14 DD 64 DA 5 GIR 1 SC 71 PA 4 SGP 39
T3 Justin Thomas -14 DD 25 DA 67 GIR 2 SC 23 PA 11 SGP 19
T3 Tyrone Van Aswegen -14 DD 44 DA 31 GIR 10 SC 21 PA 12 SGP 8
1 Sang-Moon Bae -15 DD 26 DA 45 GIR 6 SC 3 PA 18 SGP 44
2 Steven Bowditch -13 DD 17 DA 67 GIR 71 SC 2 PA 12 SGP 9
T3 Retief Goosen -12 DD 29 DA 49 GIR 50 SC 15 PA 14 SGP 1
T3 Martin Laird -12 DD 34 DA 16 GIR 9 SC 1 PA 39 SGP 8
T3 Hunter Mahan -12 DD 21 DA 37 GIR 6 SC 52 PA 6 SGP 16
T3 Hideki Matsuyama -12 DD 25 DA 8 GIR 3 SC 12 PA 22 SGP 45
T3 Bryce Molder -12 DD 64 DA 45 GIR 48 SC 15 PA 2 SGP 12
Brendan Steele's tee-to-green game was phenomenal last year but on all the evidence prior to his successful defence, neither of the two neither driving stat looked crucial. Accuracy from the tee appeared only slightly more important than power but prior to last year, no winner had dominated either stat.
Scrambling was the key stat in 2014 and the second most important in 2016 so given there were more closely mown areas around the greens last year, I thought that would be key but although the first and second ranked seventh and 10th for Scrambling the next four on the leaderboard ranked 48th, 44th, 54th and 61st, so that's clearly not the be all and end all either.
It was a bit of a putting contest two years ago with the first six home, and nine of the first 12, all ranking inside the top-ten for Putting Average for the week but Steele managed to win ranking 60th last year! But as already highlighted, his tee-to-green game was in phenomenal shape and those ranked one to four for Putting Average were all placed inside the top-ten.
Nothing appears to stand out but being straight off the tee and putting really well won't go amiss around here.
Is There an Angle In?
This is a tough assignment with which to begin the season. Lots of players are coming in to the event well-rested and raring to go and the field is packed with names unfamiliar to regular PGA Tour watchers, thanks to the influx of Web.com Tour graduates.
I'm not convinced it's an especially great angle in but Emiliano Grillo won here two weeks after winning the Web.com Tour Finals and Web graduate, Tyler Duncan, led through the first three rounds 12 months ago so this list of the 50 players that are newly qualified or retaining their cards via the Web.com Finals could be worth a look.
Playing on the West Coast and on Poa Annua is very different to playing on the Florida Swing and on Bermuda so this piece here from the guys at Future of Fantasy is worth a read. I quite like Russell Henley whenever there's a premium on putting, as I believe there will be here, but he's a much better player on Bermuda so I'm swerving him but as you'll see below, I'm giving Phil Mickelson a go, because he adores playing back in his home state.
Is There an Identikit Winner?
Jimmy Walker was fairly well-fancied five years ago (generally a [36.0] shot) and Steele was the same price to defend last year but outsiders have a reasonable record. Steele was a [75.0] chance in 2016, as was Grillo 12 months earlier, whilst Sang-Moon Bae in 2014 and Bryce Molder, the 2011 winner, both went off at triple-figure prices, so don't be afraid to go for an outsider or two.
Steele was never outside the first three places at any stage last year and having trailed by two going in to the fourth and final round, he was in front by the fifth on Sunday and he won the event comfortably by two strokes. He did drop a couple of shots at 12 and 14 but nobody pushed him and there were no dramas at all but that wasn't the case in the two previous renewals and despite the late finish in the UK it might be worth staying up to trade if they're anything to go by.
In addition to both Justin Rose and Steele trading at around [2.5] earlier in the event, three players were matched at long-odds on at the death in 2015. Jason Bohn and Kevin Na both hit a low of [1.5] and the eventual winner, Grillo, was matched at [1.07] at the first playoff hole before he missed from three feet for the win. He did go on to win but it wasn't hard to back him back after the miss.
In the 2016 edition, Paul Casey was matched at [2.3] and Scott Piercy just [2.0] before we'd even got to Sunday and in addition to those two trading so short, Johnson Wagner also hit a low of [2.3] and the runner-up, Patton Kizzire, was matched at just [1.6].
With three reasonably tough holes (13, 14 and 15) preceding three easy finishing holes, there's all sorts of scope for trading at Silverado and if the leaderboard looks tight going into Sunday's final round, a late night's trading may well reap rich rewards.
We've only had four renewals here so far but it's already shown to be a venue where winning from off the pace is perfectly possible.
Steele was always up there last year but Chesson Hadley, who began the final round just a stroke behind the 54-hole leader, Duncan, was tied for 61st after round one before a course-record 61 in round two moved him up to third at halfway. Sang-Moon Bae was always on the premises in 2014 and he was four clear after 54 holes but the runner-up, Bowditch, was tied for 80th after round one and he was still six adrift and tied for 36th at halfway. Grillo was six back and tied for 19th at halfway three years and the first nine home were all outside the top-five through 36 holes and Steele was nine strokes adrift at halfway and still four back with a round to go when he won here for the first time two years ago.
I can see why Patrick Cantlay is quite well-fancied but he's not for me at around 14/1. The Californian finished last season reasonably well and the course should suit him but given he's won just once before on the PGA Tour and that he's making his debut, he looks very skinny to me.
Recent Wyndham winner, Brandt Snedeker, is a Poa Annua specialist who has a fine record on the West Coast but he too looks short enough given his two starts here are fairly uninspiring. He was 57th here on debut in 2014 and 17th 12 months later.
Having finished 10th and 17th in his two starts here to date, Ryan Moore will have his supporters but I'm not one of them. He often putts poorly and he's hardly prolific. It's now more than two years since he won his last title, the John Deere Classic, and he's easy to swerve too.
Promising Chilean teenager, Joaquin Niemann, is harder to dismiss and if he picks up from where he left off last season he will be winning soon but again, I'm happy to leave him out before the start too.
Phil Mickelson is a fascinating contender this week and whoever's trying to lay him at [34.0] plus is taking a chance. Yes, he had a lousy Ryder Cup but that was hardly a surprise, it was hardly anything new and I doubt he cares an awful lot. He's never really thrived in the event and he'll be glad to get home to California where he's been a standing dish for much of his career.
Throughout his career, backing Phil blind on the West Coast always gave you a run for your money and it has here recently too. In his only two starts he's finished eighth and third and take a look at his stats above from last year, they were awful! This course should really suit his eye (remember, he won a World Golf Championship on a tree-lined track in Mexico as recently as March) and if he can place when producing stats that bad, how will he fare if he puts his mind to it in order to silence a few critics after Paris.
After his crazy ball-moving putting exploits in the US Open, his bizarre dance advert for Mizzen and Main and now a dreadful Ryder Cup, the media are quick to poke fun at Phil but he shouldn't be ridiculed about his game just yet. He made it all the way to East Lake for the Tour Championship, putted better than anyone else in the field at the recent Dell Technologies Championship and he's too big here given how weak this field is.
My only other pick is Tyler Duncan, who I thought was too big at [220.0], given how well he performed he last year.
I'll be back on Friday with the In-Play Blog.
*You can follow me on Twitter @SteveThePunter